Spanking: 10 Tactics to Try Instead - Nemours Blog


Spanking: 10 Tactics to Try Instead

Mother spanking daughter instead of using other tactics

If ever there were a hot-button parenting topic, it’s spanking. The argument for spanking from some parents and often-well-meaning relatives sometimes goes: “I was spanked and my parents were spanked, and we all turned out just fine. Kids today wouldn’t be such spoiled, disrespectful brats if their parents had a firm hand.” To which opponents of spanking (from pediatricians to mental health professionals, from your neighbor to a mom’s group friend) might say… “But research consistently shows that spanking:

  • teaches children that it’s OK to hit when they’re angry
  • can cause anger, aggression, resentment and physical harm (Babies and toddlers are especially unlikely to be able to make any connection between their behavior and physical punishment. They will only feel the pain of the hit.)
  • often doesn’t teach the lesson a parent is trying to convey
  • can make children fearful and resentful of (instead of respectful toward) their parents
  • may teach kids to avoid getting caught, rather than change their behavior
  • may inadvertently “reward” children who are seeking attention by acting out — for some kids, negative attention is better than no attention at all”

Well now, a new study spanning 50 years of research confirmed what the pediatric and mental health communities have been saying for ages: Spanking not only doesn’t help, it hurts. Published in the April 7, 2016 Journal of Family Psychology, the study analyzed the results of 111 spanking studies involving more than 160,000 children over a span of five decades. Researchers at University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan found that:

  • the more kids were spanked (defined as an “open-handed hit on the behind or extremities”), the more likely they were to defy their parents and to exhibit increased aggression, mental health issues, anti-social behavior and cognitive troubles
  • spanking didn’t make kids comply (i.e., follow directions or stop behaviors) in either the short-term or the long-term

According to a 2014 UNICEF report, 80 percent of parents worldwide spank.

Instead of Spanking: 10 Other Tactics to Try When Emotions Are Running High

Let’s be honest here: It’s practically impossible to be a parent and not feel like you’re about to lose it sometimes. We all have our breaking points. We’re human.

The urge to blow your top can feel especially high when you have more than one baby, toddler or preschooler who needs (demands) your constant, undivided attention … kids who are young, “spirited”/“strong-willed” … a child with special needs … you haven’t had a good night’s sleep in days (maybe weeks, months or years) … you feel like total chaos (loud, whiny, mind-numbing chaos) is imploding all around you. Any and all of that is enough to frazzle even the most patient of parents.

But, before both you and your kids reach the end of your rope (which can sometimes feel like you’re getting to before you’ve even finished that first cup of coffee), here are some spanking alternatives to try when you’re on the verge of losing your cool:

1. Press “pause” on your emotions, collect yourself, and walk away.

We all know this can feel downright superhuman as you’re dealing with the umpteenth epic, ear-piercing meltdown of the day. But as soon as you feel like you’re getting ready to flip out, take a deep breath and ask yourself: Am I about to overreact? If so, get the kids in a safe place and step away for a few minutes. Think of it as a self-imposed “Mommy (or Daddy) time-out” to calm down, even if it’s just for a minute or two.

As you’re taking your break, also ask yourself if something else (beyond your kids’ behavior) is going on. When we’re frazzled and exhausted, it’s easy to feel like everyday misbehavior and tantrums are amplified — every little whine, every little scream can seem like it’s building up to a crescendo of deafening, maddening proportions. And, let’s face it, even if we don’t mean to (or don’t even realize it), sometimes we can feel resentful and take out our stresses and frustrations about life in general — money, work, housecleaning, cooking, hectic schedules, relationship spats — on our kids. So before you snap, ask yourself: Is this about them or me?

2. Count and breathe.

Counting can be helpful for you — and your kids — in lots of different ways. For one, it cuts down on a lot of the unnecessary arguing and lecturing. Some parents like approaches where you give kids three chances to comply (like with the 1-2-3 Magic method, e.g., “You just threw a block — that’s one…. You just threw another one — that’s two…. You did it again — that’s three. OK, time for a consequence.”). Some find it helpful to count out loud (and with counting fingers pointed up and visible) to help encourage movement toward a request (e.g., “I need you to stop jumping on the couch right now. 1 … 2 … 3. OK, time for a consequence.”).

Breathing, when combined with counting, can help you both if you use it as a method to calm down and reframe your brain when things get heated. Close your eyes, count slowly to 10, and gradually breathe in through your nose and breathe out of your mouth. Some doctors recommend saying “relax” in your head as you breathe and count (i.e., saying “R-E-E-E-E” for five seconds as you breathe in through your nose, and “L-A-A-A-X” for five seconds as you breathe out through your mouth).

3. Remove, redirect and distract.

As soon as little ones (babies, toddlers, preschoolers) start going down the wrong path, immediately redirect — remove them from the situation and help them focus their attention on something else, e.g., “Did you see those blocks? Let’s see if we can build a tall tower.”

And removing kids from a situation by using a timeout is, of course, not a new tactic by any stretch of the imagination. But it really can work for lots of kids — if you’re consistent. Choose a boring spot with no distractions (say, a kitchen chair or bottom stair). How long? Some experts say one minute for each year of age is a good rule of thumb. Others recommend using a timeout until a child has calmed down (to teach self-regulation). Every child is different — do what works best for yours.

4. Stop and get down to their level — literally.

Your directives will be much clearer and much more likely to be received, understood and followed when you kneel down and look your kids in their eyes, rather than barking commands down at them from way up high — or from another room altogether. It can help, especially for children who are bouncing off the walls or on the verge of freaking out, to say their name and gently touch their shoulder or arm.

How often do we find ourselves shouting edicts as we’re walking away or multitasking (washing dishes, making dinner, doing laundry, getting everyone out the door)? Yet, a lot of the time, none of it really seems to “land” — we often don’t feel heard and neither do they, right? But when you stop what you’re doing, get down to their level, and look them right in the eyes, kids tend to realize that you need their full attention — and that they have yours, too.

5. Allow them to experience natural consequences — and help them understand the connection between actions and consequences.

That means matching the response with the infraction — and responding in a reasonable, related way. So, for example:

  • If they … throw their toys all over their room, you won’t clean them up — they will (or, if they’re little, you’ll work together to clean them up).
  • If they … scribble all over the kitchen wall, you give them a bucket of water, soap and a sponge and they clean it up.
  • If they … hit a playmate, the play date (and the fun) ends early.

Not only does this give a non-physical consequence, it gives kids the opportunity to learn from their own mistakes. With this method, you also resist that natural urge to want to rescue your kids from mistakes — to try to make it all better. In the long run, you’ll be doing your children a favor by letting them fail and be disappointed sometimes. Along these same lines…

6. Encourage “positive practice.”

That means having your kids practice the correct way of behaving when they have a misstep. For example, if they run down the aisle at the store, have them walk slowly down the aisle three times. Maybe say: “What would be a better way to have done that? Let’s try that again.” This tactic both educates and disciplines.

7. Practice “planned ignoring.”

In other words, ignore annoying but harmless behaviors that occur a lot (say, for instance, that incessant whining that’s been driving you bonkers since the crack of dawn). To ignore, don’t look at or talk to the kiddo in question. You might have to leave the room. It also helps sometimes if you pick something up (like a book) and start looking at it. Be sure to give your child attention as soon as the negative behavior stops.

8. Try to be flexible — and choose your battles.

Sometimes it can feel tempting to just yell, “I said no!” and immediately institute a punishment. But hearing a constant chorus of “no” all day can be disheartening for kids and adults — and, some of the time, it’s not totally warranted and may just unnecessarily add to the power struggles between you and your munchkins. Of course, sometimes “no” is absolutely the only answer — “No, you can’t have cookies for dinner” or “No, you can’t cut your sister’s hair.” But other times, maybe you could try letting your kids “win” one. Say, if your child wants to stay at the playground a little longer, would 15 more minutes be so bad? Consider the request carefully when your kids want something. Is it really so outrageous? Maybe not. Pick your battles, and try to accommodate when you can.

One BIG caveat, though: Choose the battle before you’ve told your kids “yes” or “no,” not after. For example: If they want extra time at the park and you want to say “no,” choosing your battles and saying “yes” instead is fine. But … if they want to stay at the park and you say “no,” the battle has already started. Saying “yes” when they whine or ask again (and agaaaaaaain) is just going to teach them that a “no” might not really mean “no.” That is inconsistency in parenting and will only lead to much more trouble.

9. Find a way to (safely) get out anger or frustrations — both yours and theirs.

Sometimes everyone just gets so darn mad or upset that we really need an outlet to release all of that pent-up energy and emotions. Try some healthy ways to vent:

  • Punch or kick a pillow or gigantic stuffed animal.
  • Scream into a pillow.
  • Squeeze putty or play dough.
  • Do jumping jacks.
  • Dance your heart out.
  • Rip paper.
  • Go outside to kick a ball or practice batting.
  • Push against a wall with the palms of both hands as hard as you can.
  • Clasp your hands and push your palms together with all your might.
  • Write, journal or draw a picture of what’s so upsetting.

10. Model the behavior you want to see.

Before you lash out, think about this: Is that how you would want them to behave when angry? Remember that your kids are watching — always. They can learn methods for developing self-control and how to handle anger, disappointment, frustration, etc. — and how to be kind and respectful — from watching you. The younger kids are, the more cues they take from you. When you lose your cool, too, you’re often just adding fuel to the fire.

We, the parents, have to set the tone — even when we may feel like our patience and/or sanity is hanging on by a thin thread. That doesn’t mean we can’t get mad or frustrated. But we can be more effective (and less terrifying) if we speak calmly, clearly and firmly — not with anger, blame, harsh criticisms, fault-finding, threats or putdowns. It’s important to keep the focus on the behavior, not the child.

Help your children understand that although you may not like a particular behavior, that doesn’t mean you don’t like them — and that although you may be disappointed in the behavior, it’s not that they’re a disappointment or failure. Make sure your kiddos genuinely know that although you want them to try to do better next time, you love them no matter what — always.

Reviewed by Maia Noeder, PhD, pediatric psychologist at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del.

Want more tips? Also check out: “Positive Parenting: 13 Pointers to Help Lay the Foundation.”

Learn More
Get tons of parenting and discipline tips for kids of all ages and stages:

From Nemours
Bedtime Problems
Eating and Mealtime Problems
Discipline When Children Don’t Listen
Fighting and Aggression
Giving Clear Directions
Planned Ignoring
Sensible Consequences
Special Playtime
Using Rewards to Improve Behavior
The ABCs of Charting Behavior
Time and Predictable Schedules

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Developing Your Child’s Self-Esteem
Disciplining Your Child
Disciplining Your Child With Special Needs
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Nine Steps to More Effective Parenting
Taming Tempers
Teaching Your Child Self-Control

Nemours Division of Psychology

The psychologists and psychiatrists at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., provide individual and group consultation and treatment for kids and teens with a wide range of psychosocial, developmental and behavioral health concerns as well as those with chronic medical conditions. Some of our psychologists also see existing primary care patients in select Nemours duPont Pediatrics offices in Delaware.